By María Cristina Fernández Hall

A response to Refiguring the Spiritual, a public conversation with artist Laurie Anderson on February 10, 2011.

Writing about a conversation is always much harder than writing about a book or essay. There is no planned structure in talking.  Sometimes the purpose does not seem clear, but we talk in the hopes of finding some streaming elements for a thought. In life and in faith, our delineation toward the “right” accomplishments is not clear either.

This is quite similar to how Laurie Anderson views our purpose in life. Sometimes we do not know what it is, or why we’re here. “I’m not sure at all that we’re here; I think we’re probably not,” she says that night (if that happened). So what do we do in life? This life which encompasses a “frightening and fantastic feeling that this is all there is.” In such a short time, what do we do with ourselves?

No one knows.  Yet, as Anderson points out, our schools, governments and even our friends seem to think that we should work—or at least work till we find out what we are supposed to do. Anderson offers a statistic that Britain lost 500 man hours last year due to sickness. Since when, she asks, did you owe Britain your man hours? This is a good point. Nevertheless, Laurie works like mad. The summer after college she sent her work to five hundred galleries in Europe. She was the artist in resident for NASA. She has published six books.

A slide of one of Anderson’s works. White tubes hung in a patch of trees. They only look like scribbles. If we look around, we’ll still see scribbles. If we bend down to the height of a child, we see the shape of a tiger.

Another slide of a work called Mach 20. Sperm in a kamikaze race against the clock. Some will be bald. Half will become women. What if they were whales—going 15,000 miles per hour? Four-hundred blind whales departing from America to Japan, arriving in 45 minutes. How would they be received? Would they realize they were carrying information? A message? Would there be room? Would they know that they had been sent for a purpose?

Sometimes, as in this first work of white tubes, we need pondering, meditation and perspective to see what is. Meditation, on occasions, involves serious work. Anderson spent two weeks of silence. Whenever something bad happened, she wouldn’t scream but would put it in her body. Loneliness to the knee; loss to the shoulder; anger to the back of the neck. Is there a purpose now, after two weeks’ silence? Will the whales ever know? Maybe not. But maybe she put purpose in her work: to seek in a world where existentialism can be transposed through art in tubes, technology, and calculation. Maybe if we recognize that we have developed our own blindness, we can rid ourselves of British statistics, and bend down, and see the tiger.

María Cristina Fernández Hall is an undergraduate at Columbia University.